Take Six: A Legacy of Encouragement

-an opinion piece by Jim Bishop

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying."
– John William Waterhouse

Rather sobering – I’ve written obituaries of six former workplace colleagues over the last three months – Robert D. Yoder, Norman Derstine, Vida J. Huber, Paul R. Yoder, Sr., Mary Jane Detweiler and Linden M. Wenger, in that order.

It’s served as a reminder of the tenuous nature of life – that we’re pilgrims on a journey, emerging from dust and to dust we return.

Early December, I attended the wedding of a nephew, Stephen Bishop, to Julie Snyder, a celebrative occasion as two hearts and lives joined as one.

Almost ironically, both the wedding ceremony – attended by a throng of witnesses – and the funerals, where families and friends celebrated the lives and legacies of the departed, were marked by moments of joy, even laughter, amid a flood of emotions.

I was able to attend the funeral/memorial services of two of the six former Eastern Mennonite University persons – Norman Derstine and Vida Huber.

I was moved by the worshipful atmosphere and by tributes being given by persons who had related closely to the deceased. The spoken word, stirring, special music and singing of hymns spoke of the triumph of God’s eternal life and love over physical death – in spite of the painful separation – refreshed and renewed my spirit and faith.

All six left an indelible mark on my life, starting with:

Norman Derstine

* Norman Derstine, 85, from my same home area of Bucks County, Pa., my dad’s best buddy growing up. When I started my public information/media relations position at my alma mater the summer of 1971, Norman was director of church relations here. We worked closely together, literally, office-wise and otherwise. I was struck by Norman’s commitment to promoting the school’s significant contributions to the broader church. He also had much interest in radio broadcasting, as did I, then and now.

Robert (Bob) Yoder

* Robert (Bob) Yoder, 76, long-time biology professor in the Suter Science Center next to my office, was rather low-key, a quiet but astute observer of human nature, a friend of the Earth, an avid angler (I once sent him a cartoon depicting a guy sitting in a rowboat fishing. A sign on the side of the small craft read, "I’d rather be working").

Among Bob’s gifts was an amazing flair for writing poems, songs and other creative tributes that he gave others to mark special occasions. He made others feel special, and in turn, so was Bob.

Mary Jane Detweiler

* Mary Jane Detweiler, 79, was the wife of EMU’s sixth president, the late Richard C. Detweiler. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis early in their tenure here. Even while in obvious pain much of the time, she never complained, but rather regularly bore a radiant countenance and a positive spirit. Richard was a mentor; Mary Jane was an encourager.

Vida Huber

* Vida Huber, 68, and her husband, Harold, were our good neighbors in the Belmont Estates subdivision ever since we moved to the ‘Burg the summer of 1971.

Vida put the squeeze on me in those early days here, as the EMU nursing department that she headed kept growing, spurring the need for more office and classroom space in the dingy basement of the old administration building. As the program expanded, our office space kept shrinking to the point that four people occupied the area that I had to myself when I started working at EMU.

But Vida never deliberately elbowed anyone. She was a compassionate educator, a good listener, both a thinker and a doer, involved in many agencies and programs beyond her immediate work related to the healing arts. She was anticipating the next exciting stage of life, retirement, when those plans suddenly changed.

The diversity of people who spoke at Vida’s memorial service spotlighted her wide range of influence, community involvement and cutting edge work in the health care arena.

Paul R. Yoder, Sr.

* Paul R. Yoder, Sr. would have turned 90 on Christmas Day this year, was amazing, the perfect example – to me, anyway – of how to successfully grow old with grace and enthusiasm. Paul was an ardent supporter of EMU, usually cheering on the Royals at numerous athletic events and remained a member of the executive committee of the Loyal Royals athletic booster club at the time of his death.

Paul frequently spoke words of encouragement to me on my work here as well as on my column jottings, which energized me in turn.

Linden M. Wenger

* Linden M. Wenger, 92, taught undergraduate and seminary-level Bible and philosophy courses for 23 years until his retirement in 1978. He was a pastor/overseer in Virginia Mennonite Conference, held numerous other conference and churchwide offices over the years and worked with older adult issues.

Linden knew his stuff, but he didn’t exactly exhibit the most scintillating pedagogy style when I had him for a philosophy course my freshman year (1963-64) at EMU. So I was in a guarded mood when, many years later, I had him as a guest on my live weekly interview program, "Focal Point," on the university radio station, WEMC-FM.

The topic was his just-released book, "Climbing Down the Ladder," an autobiographical treatise on retirement. The gentle man amazed me – he was both animated and candid in talking about the need to accept one’s limitations as an older adult and the need to graciously turn over certain responsibilities to younger people. It ranks among my most memorable programs in more than 20 years of doing the show.

As I sat there at the funerals, I wondered how many accolades the deceased had heard while alive, well and hearty.

Except for Mary Jane and Linden, the others leave spouses behind to carry on without their mates. It will certainly be a difficult Christmas for each one, as it was for me that first holiday season after my dad died in 1998.

The departure of these six remind me how often I sit and wring my hands over life’s difficulties, on well-made plans that have gone awry.

What a difference it might make if a larger proportion of this energy went into reflecting upon the people whose lives have intersected mine at critical developmental stages, serving as positive role models to me, and to letting them know that.

As a new year dawns, maybe one of the best resolutions each of us can make is to give a bit of yourself – a handwritten card with a message of affirmation, a phone call to someone at a distance who has influenced your life at a critical point, starting with those closest to you and branching out from there.

Isn’t that preserving the spirit of Christmas all year long?

Jim Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.